“Americans tend to eat far too many omega-6 fats and far too few omega-3s,” says Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RD, author of Prevent a Second Heart Attack: 8 Foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease. “This encourages inflammation in the body, propelling the process of cardiovascular disease.” So, she notes, adding a daily dose of flax to your diet, which has an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 4 to 1, can help you get back in balance and reduce inflammation.
A spate of research suggests consuming flaxseed also improves blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels to safeguard heart health. What’s more, according to findings published in the Journal of Functional Foods, flaxseed contains amino acids that may lower blood pressure by inhibiting an enzyme responsible for reducing blood flow. And German researchers report that the omega fats in flax can improve skin health, making it “vanity fare.”
Flaxseeds, adds Brill, are among the leading sources of lignans, a type of plant-derived phytoestrogen. “These lignans are metabolized in the gut by bacteria into compounds that play a role in the prevention of hormone-related cancers such as prostate and breast,” she says. Scientists at Tufts University in Boston reported that flaxseed lignans can protect your ticker by lowering LDL cholesterol and C-reactive protein levels, a marker of inflammation. “Lignans also have potent antioxidant properties, so they help neutralize free radicals, thereby reducing DNA damage as well as the oxidation of LDL cholesterol—a crucial step in artery plaque formation,” notes Brill.
The mighty flaxseed also contains a good balance of soluble and insoluble fiber. “The gel-forming nature of soluble fiber works like a sponge, absorbing cholesterol in your digestive track so that you end up excreting it,” says Brill. “This also slows digestion, resulting in a smaller rise in postmeal blood sugar, thereby reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.”
No slouch either, insoluble fiber promotes regular elimination and thus helps keep the colon healthy. By quelling hunger, the fiber in flax may also help winnow the waistline by reducing overeating.
A BETTER GRINDTo reap all the benefits flax has to offer, Brill recommends consuming 1 to 2 tablespoons of flaxseed a day. It’s important to keep in mind that you can munch on flaxseeds until the cows come home, but if you ingest them whole, rather than ground, you won’t get results.
“Unfortunately, because flaxseeds’ shiny coats keep the nutrients sealed inside all the way through your digestive system, you need to grind the seeds into a powder to ‘free’ the nutrients and allow your body to absorb them,” Brill says. If you buy flaxseed whole, you’ll need a coffee or spice grinder to pulverize it. You can also buy ground flaxseed (or flax meal), but choose brands that package it in opaque bags, such as Bob’s Red Mill, which prevents light from damaging the delicate oils. To prevent the oils from turning rancid, Brill suggests storing your flaxseed, whole or ground, in an airtight container in the fridge or the freezer.
OIL CHANGEAvailable in the refrigerator section of health food stores, flaxseed oil, pressed from the seeds of the flax plant, provides a bonanza of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed oil doesn’t hold up too well to heat, so keep it out of the skillet and always store the bottle in the fridge. Some brands, such as Barlean’s, retain the naturally occurring cancer-fighting lignans, but you lose the fiber and some vitamins and minerals when the seed is turned into oil.
FLAX FIXNow you know about flax’s stellar nutritional credentials, but aside from stirring it into yogurt and oatmeal, what do you do with it? Here are some tasty ways to get your flax fix:
• Whirl ground flaxseed into smoothies along with fresh fruit.
• Add flaxseed oil to hummus, pesto, and vinaigrettes.
• When baking, you can replace a large egg with 1 tablespoon of flax meal mixed with 3 tablespoons hot water. (Let stand, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes).
• Replace one quarter of the flour with ground flaxseed in muffin, pancake, crépe, quick bread, and pizza crust recipes. Use the golden type in lightcolored baked goods such as white cakes.
• Sprinkle ground flaxseed over fruit salads and roasted vegetables.
• Stir flax meal into meat and vegetable stews.
• Incorporate flax into the topping for crisps and crumbles.
• Mix ground flaxseed into burger meat and meatloaf.
Flax Granola BarsMakes 12 bars
PREP TIME: 25 minutes
12⁄3 cups rolled oats
1⁄2 cup dried apricots, chopped
1⁄2 cup dried cherries or cranberries
1⁄2 cup pecans, almonds, or pistachios, roughly chopped
1⁄2 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1⁄3 cup ground flaxseed
1⁄4 cup brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon cardamom (optional)
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 tablespoons canola or grapeseed oil
1⁄4 cup honey, agave syrup, or maple syrup
2 tablespoons water
1⁄3 cup almond butter or peanut butter
Fleur de sel (optional)
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a large bowl, mix the oats, dried fruits, nuts, pepitas, flaxseed, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and cardamom. In a separate bowl, mix the butter, oil, sweetener, and water. Combine wet with dry ingredients and mix until everything is moist. Stir in almond butter and mix well.
Line an 8- X 8-inch cake pan with parchment paper, allowing it to flow up the sides. Lightly grease the parchment paper. Spread oat mixture in the prepared pan, pressing firmly to mold it to the shape of the pan. Sprinkle with fleur de sel, if desired.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until browned around the edges. Let cool completely before slicing into bars. If the bars are too crumbly upon first slicing, try chilling the pan in the fridge for 30 minutes before continuing to cut the bars.
TD&N Nutrient Analysis (per bar): Calories: 296; Total Fat: 19 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Polyunsaturated Fat: 5 g; Monounsaturated Fat: 9 g; Cholesterol: 8 mg; Sodium: 131 mg; Carbohydrates: 29 g; Fiber: 5 g; Protein: 6 g